12 November 2019

Three Little Women and One Big Spoiler

Frederick Niven wrote The Flying Years. I learned this as a teenager through a list of New Canadian Library titles printed in a copy of Philippe-Joseph Aubert de Gaspé's Canadians of Old.

The Flying Years was series title #102.

Frederick Niven... The Flying Years... I never saw mention of one without the other, and I never saw either in a bookstore.

For a long time, I thought Niven had written no other books, when in fact, he'd published more than thirty; from The Lost Cabin Mine (1908) to The Transplanted (1944), they span the better part of his life.

At some point last decade, I ordered a copy of The Flying Years, sight unseen, from an online bookseller – surely, it was the place to start in on things Niven – but when it arrived, it looked deathly dull. The publisher's assurance that its logo was a "SIGN OF A GOOD POPULAR NOVEL" did not sway, and I set it aside.

I continued to keep an eye out for Niven titles, but the only offerings I found were online. The Porcelain Lady sounded interesting. Who can't help but feel excitement in a title like Hands Up! One lone copy of Niven's 1927 novel Queer Fellows (US title: Wild Honey) was listed at £68 (with a further £11.21 in shipping), but I couldn't justify the expense.

So, imagine the thrill in finding a copy of The Three Marys (London: Collins, 1930) in an ill-lit, musty antique store not thirty kilometres from our home.

I paid $7.50!

There are so many things to like about this book. Let's beginning with it being a fifth impression. Who would've thought that Niven's readership was so large!

I like advert for Kolynos Dental Cream.

And if you lose the jacket, a second ad is stamped on the book itself.

I also like that the price intrudes on the spine and cover illustration.

And what of that illustration? Does the towering artist not intrigue? How about the petite women of increasing elegance?

Forget The Flying YearsThe Three Marys was the novel for me! A little research found that H.E. Bates liked The Three Marys, placing its author at "the front rank of contemporary story tellers." Writing in Everyman, Bates praised Niven's ability to create "real characters."

This past weekend, I sat down with The Three Marys. Not two minutes later, I put it aside, having read this:

And now I try to forget.

Should I have warned you? Chances are you'll never come across a copy.

I've never read a spoiler quite like the above. Can you blame me in sharing it?

So, I pick up my copy of The Flying Years and, after all this time, notice this on its cover:

Should I have been reading The Flying Years all along?

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11 November 2019

Remembrance Day

Verse by Edna Jaques, written in the year after of the Armistice.

             We have kept faith, ye Flanders' dead,
                  Sleep well beneath those poppies red,
                  That mark your place.
             The torch your dying hands did throw,
             We've held it high before the foe,
             And answered bitter blow for blow,
                  In Flanders' fields. 
             And where your heroes' blood was spilled,
                  The guns are now forever stilled,
                  And silent grown.
             There is no moaning of the slain,
             There is no cry of tortured pain,
             And blood will never flow again
                  In Flanders' fields. 
             Forever holy in our sight,
                  Shall be those crosses gleaming white,
                  That guard your sleep.
             Rest you in peace, the task is done,
             The fight you left us we have won.
             And "Peace on Earth" has just begun,
                  In Flanders now.

07 November 2019

A Dedication Born of Tragedy

Purchased four years ago, The Miracle and Other Poems set me back two dollars and change. That price says much about contemporary interest in Virna Sheard. I imagine her husband, Dr Charles Sheard, would be pleased. According to the poet, he held a "deeply rooted prejudice" against her literally endeavours. A person of public profile himself – Chief Medical Officer of Toronto, Chairman of Ontario's Board of Health, President of the Canadian Medical Association, and Member of Parliament, amongst other things – Dr Sheard disliked the publicity brought by his wife's writing.

Doctor Sheard reflects his time, as does his wife, as does The Miracle and Other Poems (1913). I've shared several examples of its verse – "April", "When April Comes!""November", and "When Christmas Comes" – but not one has stayed with me so much as that found in its dedication:

Before reading those four lines, I knew nothing of the link between the poet and the Niagara Ice Bridge Tragedy.

The Globe, 5 February 1912
Accounts of the tragedy are detailed and varying, owing, I think, to the number who witnessed and were traumatized by its horror.

On Sunday, 4 February 1912, approximately three dozen people ventured out on the Niagara Ice Bridge, a natural structure spanning the Canadian and American shores. Walking across, an old and popular pastime, was thought safe until that afternoon when the bridge broke apart. All reached the safety of the shore save Eldridge Stanton, his wife, and a sixteen-year-old American boy named Burrell Hecock. The last could've made land, but turned back to help the couple.

It only gets worse.

The boy became separated from the Stantons, finding himself stranded on another ice floe. As it drifted slowly toward the falls, he managed to grasp a rope dangling from one of the bridges. A crew began pulling him up, but the boy lost his grip, plunged into the river, and disappeared.

Anguished reporting in the following day's Toronto Globe concludes with the fate of the Stantons:

The Globe, 5 February 1912
These words from earlier in the reporting cannot fail to move:
Somewhere deep in the great whirlpool to-night; sleeps the man, partially identified as Mr. Stanton, who twice put side chances of rescue in order to remain with his terror-stricken wife, and who, in the shadow of death, spurned assistance for himself and attempted to bind about the woman's body a rope dangling from the lower steel arch bridge. And the lad, Burrell Heacock, is cast from the same mould. Had he not turned back on the ice to give assistance to the man he, too, might have made the shore.
This is rightly the story of the Stantons and Burrell Hecock (often incorrectly spelled "Heacock"), but the literary historian in me can't help but be interested in its connection to Virna Sheard. The poet is mentioned in newspaper accounts, but never as a poet, and always as an appendage of her husband. This paragraph from from the Globe (6 February 1912) is typical:

Because the Stanton family was in the stationary business, the deaths of Eldridge Stanton and his wife were reported in the March issue of Bookseller & Stationer:

Again, his relationship to the poet Virna Sheard escapes mention. Curiously, and for no perceptible reason, the very same issue of Bookseller & Stationer features this portrait:

I shared the Bookseller & Stationer reporting because it too is a reflection of its time. It is no different than other contemporary reports in referring to the dead woman as "Mrs Stanton" or, more often than not, "his wife." Her husband is described as the Scretary Treasurer of O. B. Stanton & Wilson, stationers and printers, the son of prominent professional photographer Eldridge Stanton, Sr, while she is... well... her husband's wife.

The Globe, 6 February 1912

Some digging finds that she was born in Toronto on 13 June 1882 to Lillian and Nelson Butcher. Her given names were Lillian Clara. She was known  by the latter.

I wish I could offer more.  This doesn't do her justice.

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01 November 2019

Virna Sheard Sees November as a Hooded Friar

Bookseller & Stationer, March 1905

Verse for the month by Virna Sheard (née Stanton), daughter of Coburg, Ontario, from The Miracle and Other Poems (Toronto: Dent, 1913).

               How like a hooded friar, bent and grey,
               Whose pensive lips speak only when they pray
               Doth sad November pass upon his way. 
               Through forest aisles while the wind chanteth low —
               In God's cathedral where the great trees grow,
               Now all day long he paceth to and fro. 
               When shadows gather and the night-mists rise.
               Up to the hills he lifts his sombre eyes
               To where the last red rose of sunset lies. 
               A little smile he weareth, wise and cold.
               The smile of one to whom all things are old,
               And life is weary, as a tale twice told. 
               "Come see," he seems to say —"where joy has fled—
               The leaves that burned but yesterday so red
               Have turned to ashes — and the flowers are dead. 
               The summer's green and gold hath taken flight,
               October days have gone. Now bleached and white
               Winter doth come with many a lonely night. 
               "And though the people will not heed or stay,
               But pass with careless laughter on their way,
               Even I, with rain of tears, will wait and pray."
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22 October 2019

Let the Margaret Murray Robertson Revival Begin!

Christie Redfern’s Troubles
by the author of “Mark Wedgewood’s Wooing,” etc. [Margaret Murray Robertson]
London: The Religious Tract Society, [c. 1866]
384 pages

Christie Redfern’s troubles are so many that they spill over into her backstory. Poor girl, she began life as the fourth child of a Scottish businessman and his loving, fertile wife. Mrs Redfern died, but not before giving birth to four more children. The role of family matriarch was then taken up by Mr Redfern’s stern spinster sister Elsie, but the aunt’s firm, yet helpful hand was not enough to prevent the decline of Mr Redfern’s enterprise. What was that enterprise? Doesn’t matter. What’s important is that it failed, causing Mr Redfern to move the family to the New World and a farm in Canada West’s Glengarry County. That Mr Redfern knew little about agriculture suggests something about his failure as a businessman. To make matters worse:
Soon after their arrival in their new home, Aunt Elsie was seized with an illness which lingered long, and left her a cripple when it went away; and her temper was not of the kind which suffering and helplessness are said sometimes to improve. It was a trying time to all.
No doubt.

So begins my latest Dusty Bookcase review for Canadian Notes & Queries. The issue in which it appears – number 105 – arrived in yesterday's post. I poured over it last night, between peeks at election coverage.

"Grand Theft Bibio," Michael Melgaard's excellent piece on book thieves, was the first to distract my troubled mind.

Ray Fawkes' adaptation of Pattern Recognition by William Gibson was a visual feast.

I couldn't have agreed more with Rod Moody-Corbett's essay on Saul Bellow.

All, as always, is wrapped in covers by Seth. Lord knows, this snap doesn't do it justice.

I ask you, how many magazines have French flaps?

Other contributors include:
Jeremiah Bartram
Jeff Bursey
Andreae Callanan
Paige Cooper
Candace de Taeye
Emily Donaldson
Deborah Dundas
Carey Fagan
Stephen Fowler
Alex Good
Brett Josef Grubisic
David Huebert
David Mason
Edward O'Connor
Rudrapriya Rathore
Yusuf Saadi
Nathan Whitlock
the late David Helwig
Christie Redfern's Troubles is just about the most depressing thing I've ever read.

Does that not make it a novel for our time?

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21 October 2019

Number 43 in a Series

The 43rd Canadian general election takes place today. The first I remember was the twenty-ninth – October 30, 1972 – which Pierre Trudeau's Liberals won by all of two seats. We may see something similar befall son Justin... who happens to be the baby pictured above between Pierre and Margaret Trudeau.

My prediction is that Trudeau fils will do a little bit better, but I'm not prepared to put money on it. I don't recall an election with so many three-way races – and don't remember four-way races  at all. Will the NDP win sixteen seats or sixty? Eric Grénier won't commit.

Can you blame him?

Me? I'll be more than happy with a Liberal minority. Lester Pearson, the greatest prime minister of my lifetime, never once enjoyed a majority. I think of Pearson – and NDP leader Tommy Douglas – each time I speak medical care. I think of Pearson – and NDP leader Tommy Douglas – whenever I see our flag. I will think of Pearson – and NDP leader Tommy Douglas – when my Canada Pension Plan kicks in. My Quebec Pension Plan, too.

Polls close at 9:30 in my riding, which means this could be a very long night. Much of it will be spent dipping in and out of Hotter Than Hell, a 2005 political thriller penned by Mark Tushingham, Senior Advisor to Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Sound familiar?

It received little notice until Conservative Environment Minister Rona Ambrose forbade the author from speaking publicly. Though this made the news, I've yet to find anything by anyone who has actually read Tushingham's novel. Should be interesting – especially to we who make a habit of reading Richard Rohmer.

Does Dr Tushingham's novel give an indication of my vote?

It should.

Truth be told, at this late hour I'm torn between two candidates... neither of whom belongs to the People's Party.


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16 October 2019

A Dog's Life and Then Some

Beautiful Joe: The Autobiography of a Dog
     [New and Revised Edition]
Marshall Saunders
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, n.d.
266 pages

Like The Woman Who Did, I thought I knew this novel.

I did not.

My wife didn't want to hear me talk about Beautiful Joe because she thought too she knew the novel and would find it upsetting. The inspiration for this "autobiography" has a park named in his honour in Meaford, Ontario. Because we've found his story so disturbing, we've never visited.

There are disturbing things in Beautiful Joe – many, many things – but they don't always concern its hero. The worst of it comes in the earliest pages. A nameless cur, he enters this world as one of a litter of seven. His owner, a brute of a dairy farmer named Jenkins, lives in near poverty because he is too lazy to attend to his cows. One of his own children falls ill from his contaminated product, and one of his customers dies, but neither event causes Jenkins to change his ways. Then comes a passage that is not for the sensitive reader:
One rainy day, when we were eight weeks old, Jenkins, followed by two or three of his ragged, dirty children, came into the stable and looked at us. Then he began to swear because we were so ugly, and said if we had been good-looking, he might have sold some of us. Mother watched him anxiously, and fearing some danger to her puppies, ran and jumped in the middle of us, and looked pleadingly up at him.
     It only made him swear the more. He took one pup after another, and right there, before his children and my poor distracted mother, put an end to their lives. Some of them he seized by the legs and knocked against the stalls, till their brains were dashed out, others he killed with a fork. It was very terrible. My mother ran up and down the stable, screaming with pain, and I lay weak and trembling, and expecting every instant that my turn would come next. I don't know why he spared me. I was the only one left.
Nothing prepared me for that hellish scene, but I knew enough about the novel to brace myself for more blood and violence.

Beautiful Joe with his mother, brothers, and sisters,
as depicted by John Nicholson in the Jerrold's edition (c. 1907).

The grieving mother never recovers from the loss of her pups. Though only four years old, poor nutrition has worn her down and made her weak. Beautiful Joe brings his mother scraps, but she only turns them over with her nose... until one day, she licks him gently, wags her tale, and dies:
As I sat by her, feeling lonely and miserable, Jenkins came into the stable. I could not bear to look at him. He had killed my mother. There she lay, a little, gaunt, scarred creature, starved and worried to death by him. Her mouth was half open, her eyes were staring. She would never again look kindly at me, or curl up to me at night to keep me warm.
The milkman gives Beautiful Joe a kick. When the dog fights back, Jenkins calls for an axe:
He laid my head on the log and pressed one hand on my struggling body. I was now a year old and a full-sized dog. There was a quick, dreadful pain, and he had cut off my ear, not in the way they cut puppies' ears, but close to my head, so close that he cut off some of the skin beyond it. Then he cut of the other ear, and, turning me swiftly round, cut off my tail close to my body.
     Then he let me go and stood looking at me as I rolled on the ground and yelped in agony.
A cyclist hears the dog's cries, comes upon the scene, and beats Jenkins to a pulp. This passerby, Harry, takes the maimed creature to the home of his uncle and aunt, Rev and Mrs Morris, where he is slowly nursed back to health.

To be frank, I wasn't sure I could take too much more, but then I didn't know Beautiful Joe. I had thought it was the story of a maimed dog, who after a near lifetime of trials, tribulations, and adventure finally finds a loving home. I did not expect the manse be that home. An enlightened couple with five children, Rev and Mrs Morris believe that care for the lower creation teaches kindness, generosity, empathy, selflessness, and all sorts of other good things. Our hero joins a menagerie, consisting of rabbits, canaries, goldfish, pigeons, bantams, a guinea pig, a cat, and another dog. He's given the name Beautiful Joe because he's so ugly.

In many ways, Beautiful Joe's story ends in the third of the novel's thirty-five chapters, with his arrival at the Morris home. While he does experience a few moments of adventure – a train derailment, the rescue of abandoned farm animals, an encounter with a burglar (who turns out to be Jenkins!) – the great dramas of his life are in the past. The dog leads a quiet, uneventful life, largely in the company of Miss Laura Morris, devoting the bulk of his autobiography to relaying conversations he's heard regarding the proper and improper treatment of animals.

Beautiful Joe is at its heart a work of propaganda, written with the hope of winning an 1893 contest sponsored by the American Humane Education Society. In this Saunders was successful. I wonder whether this dedication would've featured had the novel lost:

As old novels go, Beautiful Joe offers the twenty-first-century reader a particularly focused glimpse of another time. I'll take away some knowledge of Bands of Mercy, organizations that were entirely new to me. I'll also remember the distaste shown fox hunting.

(I have a hard time these days listening to "Slave to Love.")

The novel ends abruptly with Beautiful Joe as an old dog: "I thought when I began to write, that I would put down the events of each year of my life, but I fear that would make my story too long, and neither Miss Laura nor any boys and girls would care to read it." The last adventure Beautiful Joe describes begins when he hears an amusing account of a man named Bellini and his performing animals. Curious, he visits the troupe – monkeys, dogs, ponies, goats – who are penned in a stable adjacent the town's hotel. Beautiful Joe is on his way home when he learns of a fire at that same hotel. He runs back:
In front of me I heard such a wailing, piercing noise, that it made me shudder and stand still. The Italian's animals were going to be burned up, and they were calling to their master to come and let them out. Their voices sounded like the voices of children in mortal pain. I could not stand it. I was seized with such an awful horror of the fire, that I turned and ran, feeling so thankful that I was not in it.
The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature informs that the version I read was revised so as to make it less violent.

I don't have the fortitude of an nineteenth-century child.

Object and Access: One of the biggest selling Canadian novels of all time, there are over eight million copies out there. Mine was obtained in 2017 through a small donation to the St Marys Public Library (a two hour and fifteen minute drive from Meaford's Beautiful Joe Park). Most of the twenty-two uncredited illustrations have been coloured in by a previous owner. Might it be Georgie, who in 1944 received it as a Christmas gift?

Beautiful Joe entered the public domain decades ago, and the print on demand vultures have moved in. Formac publishes the only one of the few editions coming from a real publisher. Part of its Fiction Treasures series, it features an introduction and notes by Gwendolyn Davies. Price: $16.95.

Prices for used copies of Beautiful Joe are all over the place. Three booksellers are offering true first edition, published in 1894 by the American Baptist Publication Society, beginning at US$250; of these, at US$500, the one to buy is a copy inscribed by Saunders to "a fellow Nova Scotian."

The most expensive copy is a print-on-demand edition offered by a crooked Texas bookseller at US$1207.17.

Addendum: Karyn Huenemann of Canada's Early Women Writers points out that Broadview publishes an illustrated edition edited with an introduction by Keridiana Chez. Price: $18.95. The cover suggests Beautiful Joe before Jenkins reached for that axe.

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